Manchester attack likely to trigger US security changes

WASHINGTON — Girls as young as 8 years old are among the dead and injured at Manchester as authorities in the U.K. grapple with a chameleon-like terror threat that is likely to strike again — soon.

British Prime Minister Theresa May raised the national threat level from severe to critical late Tuesday, essentially saying another attack is very likely “imminent.” At the same time, U.S. officials have been intently watching the investigation, possibly preparing to also make changes to security at home.

Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Manchester resident of Libyan descent, slipped into an unsecured area outside the 21,000-seat Manchester Arena at the conclusion of pop star Ariana Grande’s concert. He then detonated a bomb made of metal nuts, bolts and other shrapnel, believed to have been strapped to his body.

As a result, 22 people have died and 59 were wounded.

Several sources have told WTOP they believe there was little, if any, security outside the arena because it is standard procedure to reduce the security presence after some public events conclude, even before attendees have left the venue.

The suicide bomber’s movements may alter how security is deployed at future U.S. events.

“Did he try to get into the venue? Did he wait until the end? All of that is still coming through. As we learn more, we will definitely look to update what those indicators are and make recommendations to those who manage venues like the one that was targeted in Manchester,” said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official.

“Terror organizations will often seek the path of least resistance. With a public event — such as a concert — that might mean after the show is over. Many of the pre-event security preparations and procedures have been dismantled and security personnel numbers reduced, since a successful conclusion of the concert may be prematurely deemed ‘a success,’” said Mike Maness, director of security firm TrapWire Inc., in an interview.

“Terror organizations will often seek the path of least resistance.”

— Mike Maness, TrapWire Inc.

Maness, who also spent 20 years as a CIA counterterrorism operations officer, added, “If I am a terrorist, seeking the highest body count possible, I may not always focus on getting into or disrupting the event. If I can wait at an exit and have my victims come to me, that is what I’ll plan on.”

The senior counterterrorism official said for those inspired by violent extremist propaganda, “soft targets seem to be more and more of interest. We’ve seen over the last years a greater interest in locations outside the secure zone at the airport, a big holiday event around a mall where someone can use a car, even weapons like knives, not just explosive devices.”

Two weeks before the brutal shrapnel bomb attack, a calm but deeply concerned Sir Julian King, European Union commissioner for the security union, talked extensively during an exclusive interview in Washington about efforts to stop the encroachment of terrorism.

With measured and carefully chosen words, King outlined the steps taken to stop ISIS foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria from returning to EU countries, but he also expressed deep anxieties about those already there.

“We’ve also seen individuals, some of whom have never traveled outside of the EU, who rapidly become radicalized and use everyday objects, whether it’s a kitchen knife or, famously, a truck in the horrible attack in Nice and repeated in Berlin. We’ve seen them turn everyday objects into weapons,” said King.

Considering the diverse attack models, he said it is a top priority “to be able to respond to these different and various sorts of terrorist threats.”

King’s profound worry is mirrored in the U.S.

“The fact that many of these groups are seeing the payoff of these attacks where they are not running the operation, but are engaged with and inspiring the attackers without that outlay of training, is very concerning to us. It impacts our ability very much in terms of how fast we see something and how fast we have to react,” said the senior counterterrorism official.

King said, figuratively, one of his key objectives is squeezing terrorists’ operating space: “What we try and do is to close down the space in which terrorists can act.”

The specific changes King outlined include, “denying them some of the means that they use to act. We have gotten better at criminalizing money laundering and financing and controlling of the things that make explosives. We have taken some steps to better control and regulate firearms. We want to starve them of some of the practical means.”

But as authorities act to seal off opportunities for terrorists, the terrorists find other avenues. And a significant concern is the lack of clarity about what terrorists are planning, primarily because of their use of encrypted communications.

There are three groups of terrorists that U.S. counterterrorism officials routinely watch carefully. There are operatives who may actually receive training and go overseas. A second group is those who are largely self-radicalized and operationalize on their own.

But the senior counterterrorism official said the third is of great concern because they “receive additional radicalizing information through a friend, colleague, neighbor or through online material but then, they make contact (with terror groups). They use those encrypted chat rooms and other mechanisms to talk back and forth and receive some level of instruction. We call those directed attacks. Encryption really prevents us from seeing it.”

So far, there is no answer to the encryption problem. If there is one, authorities are not willing to talk about it.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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